The architecture of the human brain has a profound influence over how we learn, how we behave, how our bodies move, and the state of our mental health. A research team led by Michael W. Cole, an assistant professor at the Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience (CMBN) at Rutgers University-Newark, is at the forefront of uncovering the intricacies of how the brain works – and the behavioral implications of various brain functions.
The Cole Neuroscience Lab examines the functionality of the living brain through advanced imaging techniques including fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), MEG (magnetoencephalography), EEG (electroencephalography) and diffusion MRI. These methods help Cole and his colleagues sort out how commands generated by the prefrontal cortex – a part of the brain believed to be central to goal-directed thoughts and actions – are translated into personal behaviors.
In one Cole Lab investigation, brain activity is measured as study participants are asked to perform many specific tasks. “So that we can have experimental control,” Cole explains, “I give the participant instructions and see what happens in their brain when we systematically vary the instructions – all the way from an external instruction to the actual behavior, and all the internal processes and communications that go on in between.”
Analyzing brain activity involves far more than mapping the physical structures, a substantial task in itself. Cole says while structural connectivity is the backbone of brain function, it does not determine everything. “Even if you knew exactly how all the neurons are connected up, there are still dynamics on top of it. There’s actually a regularity to how the neurons communicate, and it is not fully specified by the structural connection you can find, so we’re also interested in overall understanding of how the brain is functionally organized.”
“We already have evidence that flexible hubs exist within the brain and that they change their interactions with other brain regions depending on what task they’re doing.”
The closer scientists such as Michael Cole can come to figuring out the brain’s functional organization, the greater the chance that people who wish to eliminate negative behaviors – or develop positive ones – might be better able to do so.
“I’m mostly focused on the basic research, to understand how this works,” says Cole, “but I think it’s useful to think ahead in terms of applications.”
This knowledge may become especially valuable in the evaluation and treatment of mental illnesses, where Cole believes disruptions of certain brain networks may be at play. “If we can understand cognitive control better, and figure out ways of enhancing it,” says Cole, “there might be some treatments that can be applied across mental disorders. We’ve seen promising results in individuals with schizophrenia, OCD, bipolar disorder. We’re looking forward to expanding on this across-disease understanding of brain function.”
The Cole Lab is affiliated with the Rutgers University Brain Imaging Center (RUBIC) and its research is funded by the National Institutes of Health.
Michael Cole earned his bachelor’s degree in cognitive science at the University of California, Berkeley, and his doctorate in neuroscience at Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh. He came to Rutgers University-Newark in 2014 after completing a postdoctoral fellowship at Washington University in St. Louis.
“I was really attracted to CMBN,” says Cole, “because it integrates different levels of research in neuroscience. It’s not just the cellular and molecular. It’s not just the systems. It’s not just the cognitive. It’s all these combined. It’s a really rich environment for collaboration, for thinking at different levels. There are lots of conversations that can happen, or you can just see an experiment or get involved in one.”
And what inspired Cole to want to study the brain in the first place?
“When I was younger I liked to think about really big questions like free will or consciousness or this sort of thing, and ultimately I was becoming frustrated with the lack of answers – so I wanted to do something empirical. Neuroscience seemed like a place to find a lot of answers.”
“I wasn’t settled on this career path, though, until my dad had a stroke toward the end of my undergraduate years. I was able to help my family understand what was happening because of what I learned in my neuroscience classes. This convinced me neuroscience research is really important not only for general understanding but also for the things that matter most in life.”